London’s Music Has Gone Flat

The life force has vanished from the capital’s classical music scene in recent years. Who is to blame?

Norman Lebrecht

Every year around this time someone publishes a survey purporting to show that Vienna is the best city in the world to live and London is going down the tubes, in 37th place according to the latest poll. We know pretty much what’s wrong with London: housing shortage, high cost of living, arse-crippling theatre seats and no day-fresh asparagus available in May and June. We take all that in our stride.

The upside is the music. For as long as I can remember, and that’s more than half a century, London’s pride has been an abundance of skilled musicians who can play any score sight unseen and generate an anything-can-happen tremor when they shamble out on stage. Orchestra members on an Abbey Road coffee break gave the Beatles their first gloss of class. Groupies at the Festival Hall waited in pouring rain for the oboist, not the conductor. Lawyers got called in to separate rival orchestral managers whose jobs traditionally hung by a thread. On three occasions that I recall, a symphony boss returned from lunch to find the locks changed on his office door.

Competition for artists and dates gave London orchestras a unique adrenalin buzz. Threadbare budgets bred brand loyalty. Principal players would turn down a new Mercedes, a weekend cottage and sex on demand in one of the state-fatted German orchestras for the questionable thrill of living hand to mouth in a London ensemble. Some players drove minicabs in quiet weeks. Concertgoers didn’t need to know that. It was all in the music.

Women players tucked their handbags beneath their seats on stage, embarrassed at how few coins they jingled. Legend has it that George Blake, the escaped Soviet spy, was hidden in a double-bass case at the Festival Hall before he was smuggled out to East Germany. Among maestros, no prisoners were taken. Leonard Bernstein took a verbal beating from the BBC Symphony brass section and Charles Mackerras was ever at odds with the Coliseum band. Georg Solti and the London Philharmonic co-existed in mutual loathing. The resultant music was explosive.

I wish I could pretend that this hyperactive fission still exists.

This is a piece I hoped never to write and each word is wrung from me with regret. But recent chats with regular concertgoers have confirmed the growling in my gut that some life force has vanished from London’s music in the past couple of years. The causes are diverse. A former orchestra manager sees the decline as a “symptom of a deeper disorder: arts are no longer currency and therefore without constituency in the media”. He’s right. Apart from The Times, newspapers scarcely review classical concerts any more in print, having attracted few clicks in response.

A surviving newspaper critic blames the subsidy-guzzling South Bank for relegating symphony concerts to a peripheral attraction, swamped on its website by pop events and on its forecourt by the stench of chain restaurants. This, too, is lamentably true.

But the major sources of decline run deeper and broader than mere presentation. The prime economic cause is the collapse of the classical recording industry which once provided a full second salary for London musicians, essential in a high-priced town. To make up the loss of £250 sessions at Abbey Road, London orchestras set about touring the world, bumped from one bucket airline to the next, blurring their brand in Asian markets. Their absence left a hole in the heart of London’s music. The Philharmonia and the London Philharmonic, both nominally “resident” at the South Bank, each play fewer than three dozen concerts there a year. For all but tax purposes they are practically exiles.

The London Symphony Orchestra play twice as often at the Barbican, in a cheerless hall that no one loves and which they are keen to leave. The Royal Philharmonic entertain Sloane Rangers at Cadogan Hall, off the beaten track. The BBC Symphony is barely seen outside Proms time. The sound of the five big orchestras, once so pronounced we could tell them apart blindfold, has homogenised. The bands sound much the same. Their competitive raison d’etre is gone.

The smaller orchestras have likewise outlived their stated purpose. The London Sinfonietta, designed to play modern music too abstruse for the BBC, saws away at mainstream stuff from the last third of the 20th century. The Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment, a pioneer in period practice, now spuriously plays “authentic” Mahler. Each clinging to a false niche, they are sustained by an Arts Council which shrugs their presentation off onto its chief client, the South Bank, serving a messy potage of unpromoted concerts.

The musicians, growing anxious, surrendered their birthright in exchange for a banker’s mantra. The swagger of London’s orchestras arose from the fact that they were owned and governed by their musicians. No more. They are now ruled by boards on which hedge-funders, minigarchs and Tory fixers outvote the few musicians. When it comes to music, City types know best.

The ones who know best of all are the orchestra managers who sit in their jobs, motionless as Cleopatra’s Needle, for up to 30 years. Their doyen, David Whelton, retires this month from the Philharmonia with the sense of a job well done — as indeed he should, given that he has kept them alive and in good nick against the odds. But for what purpose? The Philharmonia is indistinguishable from the rest. Managerial stasis has reduced great orchestras to grids of routine.

The music directors are no less to blame. Vladimir Jurowski, ten years at the London Philharmonic and holding parallel jobs in Moscow and Berlin, has run low on ideas. Esa-Pekka Salonen’s London season pales beside his work with the LA Phil. The RPO, once Beecham’s salt of the earth, is captained by an octogenarian Swiss for all seasons. The fuss around Simon Rattle’s arrival at the LSO is occasioned mostly by his predecessor’s absenteeism.

The best fresh talent is found in the second city, Birmingham, where the choice of 29-year-old Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla as music director made The Times’s front page. Her predecessor, Andris Nelsons, is now the hottest baton in America. London has missed out, time and again, on renewal. London’s music has gone flat. I wish it were not so.

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